A generation ago, charmingly cantankerous Chicago columnist Mike Royko said, “I make the best ribs anywhere.” He then started the Mike Royko Ribfest to prove it. More than 400 entrants challenged the shrugging satirist – who, despite the initial barbecue bluster, did not win his namesake contest.
It’s probably safe to say that Royko, the son of a tavern owner, did not wash his defeated ribs down with wine. One would assume that the winners of this and subsequent ribfests also took another beverage path.
But the late columnist’s appetite for ribs was matched by more than just a streak of thriftiness. This would have made Royko a great candidate for embracing value wines. If he could be perfectly happy with holes in his shoes on a dry day, a value-priced “rib wine” might have graced his coffee-stained shopping list. Besides, it’s almost National Barbecue Month, and while plenty of funds will be dedicated to the butcher shop, that doesn’t mean the wine shop should be neglected.
Earlier columns in this space have shown that a number of wines are surprisingly good with pizza, chili and even clam chowder. But enjoying barbecued pork ribs and wine doesn’t require a plea or an argument; it’s one of the great wine-and-food pairings of all time! So what if the stemware is caked/glazed with barbecue sauce?
Pork is generally quite versatile for pairing with a number of different wines. With the many rubs and sauces available to adorn a meaty rack of ribs, the wine search can be quite fun. Even better, good wine choices for any style of barbecued ribs are not overly expensive. A nice chilled bottle of rosé, all the way to a fuller-bodied Bonarda can all work quite nicely, depending on the seasoning and/or heat.
“If I am having a barbecue, especially outside, I enjoy a rosé with ribs,” says Doug Dunlay, a Chicago restaurateur. “You get bright, expressive fruit that really pairs well with the spices from the barbecue rub and the sauce. Two that I really enjoy are the Chateau Trinquevedel (Grenache) from Tavel, France and Muga (Garnacha, Viera and Tempranillo) from Rioja, Spain.
“If I’m having red wine, I will usually stay in Southern France with a medium-bodied Terrebrunne from Bandol, or any blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from the Southern Rhône Valley,” Dunlay adds. “These blends are a great pairing with any smoked meat, especially pork.”
Here are a few other options to add to even the most dog-eared, scribbled, Royko-style shopping lists:
Feudi di San Marzano Puglia IGT Primitivo: Primitivo is Zinfandel’s Italian cousin, sometimes even called the “matron of Zinfandel.” It’s not as sweet or as concentrated as some of her American descendants. This one is light-to-medium bodied with a nice approachability and balanced fruit, plus a subtle, herbal finish. Great with tangy (not smoky) sauces and rubs – on liberally mopped ribs cooked on an old-fashioned kettle cooker. Sip it beforehand while slowly cooking away, and relax. $14.
Stray Dog Zinfandel: The balance of acidity and fruit make this hard-to-find-but-worth-it Zin a classic barbecue wine. It’s also versatile enough to pivot from smokier sauces to the sweeter, stickier options. Aromas are of dark fruit and black pepper, and the palate features bing cherry and a bit of chocolate, and a spicy finish. $15 at Treasure Island.
Errazuriz Carmenère: Lots of black fruit and body with a touch of green pepper and fig. This is a truly complex wine with a beguiling aroma – more than that of the smoke coming from the grill! Carmenère is the “lost grape of Bordeaux,” and a great find for barbecue (and grilling in general). $15.